By Deepak Chopra, M.D., FACP and Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Chapman University
The award of the Nobel Prize in physics generally creates a mental blur for most people, since no one can comprehend the current state of physics without training in advanced mathematics. This year was somewhat different, thanks to a nickname.
As the world learned on October 3, the British physicist Peter Higgs and the Belgian physicist Francois Englert shared the Nobel, as was widely expected in the profession. The award was given for a theory involving a missing particle in the so-called Standard Model of particle physics. The particle had come to be known as the Higgs boson when it was postulated or more popularly as “the God particle” from a 1993 book by Leon Lederman, another Nobel laureate who also served as the director of the prestigious Fermilab.
The discovery last year at CERN in Switzerland of the Higgs boson was a triumph for the Standard Model theory. Higgs and Englert, along with Robert Brout, Gerald Guralnik, C. R. Hagen, and Tom Kibble, had hypothesized the existence of a field filling the entire vacuum of space. If it hadn’t been dubbed the God particle, physicists wouldn’t be saddled with an embarrassing, catchy name. Meant initially as a joke, the enduring moniker suggests that in some way science has reached an ultimate destination. Creation has surrendered its final secret, even if there is no God. But in reality particle physics keeps moving forward, and after the celebration at finding a Higgs boson dies down, new frontiers will open up. Meanwhile, every physicist who is asked about the God particle takes pains to distance himself from the label, including Higgs himself.
Now that God has been invoked in the discussion, however, it’s worth asking if we are getting closer to understanding Him/Her/It in a way that matters beyond the arcane of quantum physics.
Certainly a step was taken in our understanding of the finest fabric of the cosmos. In technical language, the ubiquitous Higgs field allows all particles in the universe to acquire mass through interactions with it, as the particles move through space, via a kind of dragging effect analogous to chunks of matter moving through molasses (elementary particles being the equivalent of the chunks and the Higgs field the molasses). High energy proton collisions at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN revealed the elusive Higgs boson. The Higgs, unlike the photon, which is also a boson, has a mass, expected to be in the approximate range of 125 (or more) times the mass of the proton. Bosons are particles in quantum theory that carry forces – for example, the photon is the carrier of the electromagnetic force. They can be packed together in unlimited amounts. The Higgs boson is very unstable, instantly decaying after its creation into other particles prescribed by quantum field theory.
What’s also clear is that particle physicists were willing to go to almost any lengths to provide evidence for this missing link. It took many billions of colliding protons in the huge LHC CERN accelerator, backed up by multitudes of computers around the world to painstakingly analyze the data, before the discovery of the God particle seemed real. Most physicists by now, although guarded, believe that some form of Higgs boson was in fact observed last summer. And the rapid award of the Nobel is a testament of that commonly-held belief. The difficulty of this achievement was underlined by the fact that the Higgs boson is so mysterious and fleeting that it took from 1964, when its existence was first proposed, until last March to verify that such a particle actually exists.
Being irritated by a nickname doesn’t dispel the widespread belief that science is somehow getting very, very close to understanding the fundamental nature of reality. Some take an optimistic view of the road ahead. There is hope that the Higgs field may help bring together general relativity and quantum theory. Currently cosmologists believe that dark energy permeates the universe, evolving according to general relativity, and is responsible for an accelerating expansion of the universe. Although a standard Higgs particle would say little about dark energy, more exotic versions could provide theoretical understanding of it. Scientists will have to look at the LHC results on how the Higgs decays into other particles after it is produced in high energy collisions. The “dark” side of the universe poses both a new frontier and a stumbling block. Cosmologists seem to agree that all the luminous matter in the universe makes up only 4% of whatever exists. All the hundreds of billions of galaxies, composed of many billions of stars, make up just 4% of everything. The rest may be in the form of dark matter and even the more exotic (but unknown) dark energy. So if the “Higgs-like” particle discovered at CERN turns out to be the more exotic form, it could help us understand dark energy.
As Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director of the LHC project, stated in a 2011 talk, “The Higgs is neither matter nor force. The Higgs is just different.” We won’t go into the differences here, except to say that there is reason to assume that the Higgs isn’t one of a kind but the opening wedge to an entire class of so-called scalar particles. One optimistic view of the results observed so far holds that the discovery will lead to new developments in particle physics. These would open up a finer level of the quantum domain and thus bring physics closer to its holy grail, a Theory of Everything, a grandiose-sounding, particle-based view of the cosmos.
The more pessimistic overview,( but as its proponents claim more realistic,) states that the LHC results have not given any evidence of the existence of other particles that would be needed to continue our understanding of the physics beyond the Higgs, to what is expected to be the next theoretical development, dubbed supersymmetry. As such, there’s a major snag in attempts to ultimately develop a Theory of Everything. Even leaving arguments related to theories of physics aside, such a theory, as envisaged, doesn’t say anything and in fact cannot say anything about life, evolution and the phenomena of mind and awareness. It is not even clear how gravity, the last of the four forces of nature described by general relativity, will fit into the Standard Model – at this point, a great deal of current theory, including the widely touted superstring theory, is interesting speculation.
It is inescapable that two worldviews, one scientific and technical, the other human and experiential, must either collide or converge. That is, the universe must make room for how human beings evolved in order to investigate the creation that gave rise to us. Any Theory of Everything that leaves the human dimension out – as particle physics tries overwhelmingly to do – cannot reach its goal. The Higgs boson, as viewed from the world we all experience every day, isn’t simply arcane. It leads toward a collision of worldviews rather than a convergence. We will discuss what this means in the next post.
(To be cont.)